Small Business

Get Off My Cloud


By Rebecca Smith Back in 1989, when I was planning to go into business for myself, I was abounding with optimism and eager to share my ideas and seek advice from people whose experience made me believe they were wise. Among them was my father, John G. Smith, an engineer with the U.S. space-shuttle program, as well as others in industries related to construction.

To my surprise, they countered my enthusiasm with a lot of cautionary nay-saying. The construction industry, they warned, was in the absolute depths of a severe decline, thanks to a crumbling real-estate economy. And I was about to give up the security of a paying job with a major corporation for such a venture. To top it off, I was young -- 29 years old -- and a "girl" going into a "man's" business.

Now, in the case of my father, I could understand where his advice was coming from. He loved me and was looking out for me. I had just been divorced. Having bought out my former husband's share of our house, I had virtually no money in the bank. And here I was, the dutiful daughter who had always been a stable person, telling my father that I was about to throw everything overboard.

GOING FOR BROKE. In the months that followed, I did just that, launching what would become A.D. Morgan Corp., a commercial construction company that has since grown a hundredfold annually and currently has annual revenue of $50 million.

And in doing so, I came face to face with an entrepreneurial given: For all of the wisdom that goes along with experience, it is the vibrancy of risk-taking that is necessary to build companies. To be a risk-taker, one needs often -- always? -- to turn a blind eye to what are undoubtedly truths that those more experienced are trying to convey.

In other words, if the fear and uncertainty of risk are perceived as "the enemy," then entrepreneurs -- if they are to build businesses -- must counter the enemy with a set of weapons called optimism and rationalization.

RATIONALIZING THE DOWNSIDE. In my own case, I knew that my father and my wiser colleagues were right about the dire state of the construction industry in 1989. I was also acutely aware of my own financial limitations. In short, I did accept the fact that significant risk would be a part of what I was about to do. It's just that I wouldn't allow the full risk to be registered. I needed, at some level, to be in a state of denial about the risk involved in order to harness my energy toward the cause of creating an enterprise.

When I heard those cautionary comments, I first considered that I had the necessary skills to do what I wanted to do. With university degrees in architecture and building construction and five years working as a project manager for a major national construction firm under my belt, I knew that I understood the business. I wasn't starting a company to learn but rather to capitalize on what I already knew.

As I considered my business plan, I also asked myself, "What is the worst thing that could happen if this doesn't work out?" The answer was that I would have to go back to work for someone else. Since going back to work for another company was as bad as it would ever be, I knew that I could manage the risk of my endeavor.

And so, I smiled back at the nay-saying "wise" men, and rationalized away their cautions. I didn't want to be distracted with reminders about the risk involved in pursuing my dream; I learned to repel their words with my own understanding of the situation.

LIVING THE UPSIDE. In the ensuing years, my philosophy about ignoring the risk and pursuing the dream has served my company well. During tough times, such as convincing authorities that A.D. Morgan was now capable of an increased level of bonding capacity, I've held steadfast to my way of considering risk.

A.D. Morgan is now gettng into an exciting new business, venturing from Florida, where we have operated for 13 years, to a construction-related service endeavor that will be national in scope. Already, I've floated my idea to a friend I consider experienced in this area. And, yes, he has come back with a lot of the same cautionary comments I heard way back when. As before, I smile and ignore them, knowing in my heart that we can be successful -- they apparently "just don't get it!"

Funny thing, after 13 years in the business and a lot of hard knocks, I, too, have become wise. However, I don't ever want to let my wisdom become my albatross and prevent me from pursuing my dreams. I was taken recently with a quote I discovered from a quintessential risk-taker, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

WHO DARES WINS. "Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered with failure," Roosevelt said, than to live like people who "...neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows no victory nor defeat."

My life -- an entrepreneur's existence -- has been filled with depths, both the high and the low. I've seen life in a state of glory and in a state of gloom, but, if nothing else, I have felt it. I have learned to live with the risk.

Rebecca Smith, 41, is founder and president of A.D. Morgan Corp., a commercial construction company based in Tampa and Melbourne, Fla. Entrepreneur's Byline comes to BusinessWeek Online readers courtesy of EntreWorld.org, which is sponsored by the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation


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